This will be a bit of a follow up to my last piece, “Building Resilient Knees.”
I want to expand on a couple items. I think these will be particularly helpful for people who already are pretty consistent at going to the gym (especially if they do strength training regularly) and they want their knees to feel and perform better. One quick note before I get into it though – if you are NOT in the demographic above, meaning you do not strength train regularly right now, then starting to strength train is probably the best thing you can do for your joint health (including your knees). Of course, it is a good idea for you to seek qualified instruction to make sure you are performing exercises correctly.
For those who strength train already, there are two types of exercises that I consider to be highly valuable to knee health and function that I don’t see performed all that often. If you are someone who is interested in building some resiliency in your knees, then consider starting to include some of these in your training.
1) Any type of front-loaded squat
What does “front loaded” mean? It means that any external load you are using for the exercise is located in front of your body. A few common examples include:
- Goblet squats
- Double kettlebell front squats
- Zercher squats
- Barbell front squats
Why is it valuable to include front loaded squats, especially if you might have experience doing back squats with a barbell? Afterall, most people can handle more weight on back squats than the other versions – so it is a fair question.
One critical concept I have mentioned many times is that strength is positionally dependent. Your muscle group or joint might be strong in one position, but all it takes is changing the angle by a few degrees and your strength might be drastically reduced. This is one of the big reasons why it is so important to strength train through a full range of motion.
It is also important to clarify that “a full range of motion” (or ROM) is dependent on the exercise. Yes, you should pretty much always try to squat through a full ROM regardless of what type of squat you are doing. However, front loaded squats allow for a greater ROM than back squats with a barbell. In a front loaded squat you can sit deeper into the squat while still maintaining good positioning, meaning you can develop strength in your knees at deeper amounts of knee bend. One other key benefit is that front-loaded squats allow you to safely lock out your knees at the top of each repetition, whereas back squats generally do not. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but the ability to train your knees to a full and complete lock out is a big deal. People who make a habit of doing this tend to have much happier knees, and people who stop short of it and end their reps with “soft knees” are usually ones whose knees get cranky after a while.
2) Any type hamstrings curl
In the paragraphs above I mentioned that strength is positionally dependent, and it is also important to note that strength is DIRECTIONALLY dependent as well. All joints move in at least two directions (bend and straighten), and many move in more directions than that. Some joints are hugely disproportionate when it comes to strength in opposing directions. A great example of this is finger strength – your fingers can squeeze things very tightly and they can hold onto heavy weights (or a resisting Jiu Jitsu opponent) but they are comparatively weak in the “opening” direction. In fact, if you take the rubber band from your broccoli and slip it over your fingers, it won’t take more than a few repetitions of opening your hand against the resistance of the rubber band to make you a believer.
When it comes to your knees, the vast majority of gym training, athletic events, and life activities involve straightening your knees (running, jumping, hiking up a mountain, standing up out of a deep squat, shooting a double leg takedown, and so on). This means, similar to your fingers, your knees get a lot more exposure to training in one direction than the other. This also means there is a lot of “low hanging fruit” available to you if you start training your knees in the opposite direction.
There are many exercises available to do this, but basically anything where you are trying to pull your heel towards your butt will do the trick. Some examples of exercises could be machines at a commercial gym (most have both a prone hamstrings curl and a seated hamstrings curl machine), or hamstrings curls using other devices such as stability balls, sliders, TRX, or even specialized equipment made from high-end gym equipment manufacturers like Sorinex. It is hard to say if one of these exercises is really “better” than the others – and frankly it is not really worth the discussion. I would just recommend you make a habit of consistently training at least one type of hamstrings curl based on what is conveniently accessible to you.
To recap, I recommend you make a habit of including both front-loaded squats and hamstrings curls into your training. This does not mean you need to completely ditch back squats or lunges, but if those two things are all you do for your lower body strength training I think you are leaving some valuable exercises on the table. Front-loaded squats and hamstrings curls will build strength in 1) ranges of motion, and 2) directions of force that the knees are usually under-developed in, and by making improvements in those areas you will greatly improve the robustness of your knees.
For those who want more guidance on building stronger knees, I am excited to announce the launch of a new online course titled “Fortify Your Knees.”
We will have a special launch discount announced by email in the near future, so keep an eye out for that coming soon. If you are reading this post and are not subscribed to our email list, then make sure to add yourself so that you get the notification about this upcoming sale as well as future launches and promotions.